“A Psychiatrist is the God of our Age”: Contemporary American Fiction and the Postmodern Critique of Psychiatry
“Authors, if they are great, are more like doctors than patients. We mean that they are themselves astonishing diagnosticians or symptomatologists. There is always a great deal of art involved…Clinicians able to renew a symptomatological table produce a work of art; conversely, artists are clinicians, not with respect to their own case, or even with respect to a case in general; rather they are clinicians of a civilization…It seems, moreover, that an evaluation of symptoms might be achieved only through a novel.” (Deleuze, The Logic of Sense; emphasis added)
“[The psychiatrists] thought that diagnosis was the same as cure. That if you knew why, it would stop. Which is bullshit.” (David Foster Wallace, The Pale King)
In Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), a novel skeptical about the expanding role of psychiatric discourse, pharmaceutical consumption, and commercial interests in fin-de-siècle America, Gary Lambert, a dissatisfied husband and feckless father of two, worries that he is suffering from clinical depression. He worries, moreover, that to admit to suffering from depression would reduce his identity, transforming it and himself into merely a constellation of depression symptoms—that is, to paraphrase Delillo, he would become a stranger in his own living. As Franzen describes Gary’s concerns, “He’d had the sense, moments earlier, that [his wife] was on the verge of accusing him of being ‘depressed,’ and he was afraid that if the idea the he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument” (Franzen, 161).
This brief passage points to the centrality of mental illness in contemporary American culture—not, surely, just in our culture, our media and advertising and shared values, but increasingly in our own emotions, our own sense of the rightness and contextual accuracy of our feelings. According to this model, our personal idiosyncrasies and cognitive dispositions are potentially perceived as symptoms, or signs, of disorder. For instance, Franzen depicts Gary as an individual dealing with family members in difficult circumstances: his children are angry at him, his father is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and geriatric depression, a risky financial investment has nearly bankrupted his family’s savings, his siblings (both of whom are also “depressed”) are disappointments, and his wife and he are having sexual problems. In this case, then, any low mood or heightened stress could be conceived as, so to speak, circumstantially appropriate and thus outside the sphere of psychiatry, a state of affairs that never occurs to Gary (or to his wife).
My objective in this dissertation, therefore, has been to update, as it were, the relationship between American literature and psychiatry—to refine and specify the contemporary forms of its critiques, depictions, reflections on, and alternative imaginings of the role of mental illness diagnosis and treatment in society. I move beyond the first-wave argument that these are simply functions of power institutions in society, and move on to a more dispersed phenomenology of the various ways psychiatry has become imbricated with economy, neuroscience, and media representations. In other words, how it has become a part of who we are, or at least how we think of ourselves. If Deleuze is correct in arguing that novelists can diagnose a civilization as well as doctors, then taking this approach with these novels will have succeeded in bringing much-needed attention to the work that America’s real, but non-licensed, “doctors” are doing to “apply CPR,” in the words of David Foster Wallace, to remedy our cultural malaise.
My Thesis written at Villanova explores how David Foster Wallace’s fiction pushed beyond postmodernism to establish something more sincere and earnest, in order to reclaim a vital relationship between author and reader, as well as the the reader and her community. I employ such theorists as Derrida, Levinas, and Derek Attridge to describe Wallace’s innovation, often called post-postmodernism (or “Gfhrytytu,” in his words) as one that prioritizes intersubjectivity between readers and writers, making relation and communication, instead of cultural critique or metafictional play, the primary aesthetic force. I also explore how Wallace attempts to circumvent the postmodern commodification of art by composing works that function, as best they can within a marketplace, as “gifts,” drawing on gift theorists such as Mauss, Hyde, Bataille, and Derrida (again). In both ways, I conclude that the “new way of writing” that Wallace proposed and accomplished rests on a firm conviction that literature should operate as an ongoing conversation and dialogue between writer and reader, reader and community, reader and self.
My most recent project, derived from my dissertation research, combines digital media studies and the medical humanities. While researching the chapter on The Corrections I noticed a correlation between 1) the rise of SSRI’s and related psychotropics following the FDA’s approval of Prozac in 1987 and; 2) an exponential increase of memoirs of mental illness and/or trauma published in the 90s and this century. Perhaps starting with William Styron’s Darkness Visible (1989) and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (1993), memoirs from a host of talented writers, including Lauren Slater, Kay Redfield Jameson, Marya Hornbacher, Augusten Burroughs, and Mary Karr, among others, appeared, changing the landscape of American publishing and introducing myriad cultural trends (for example, reality TV).
My objective is to turn this aspect of my dissertation into a book-length project, focusing on a historical genealogy of “self-writings,” from the “hypomnemata” Foucault discusses in Roman life, to the commonplace books of the Early Modern period and later American slave narratives. My aim is to contextualize the ascension of the modern memoir as a genre unto itself and study how its aesthetics, rhetoric, and paratext both resist and follow in the tradition of these earlier works.
In addition to studying how modern memoirs relate to previous incarnations, I will at the same time make a counter move to examine the emergence of digital media illness narratives, or what I call “Memoir 2.0,” analyzing their formal and thematic continuities and discontinuities with the memoirs of the 90s and early century. My interest in these arose from designing a media studies unit for my “Illness Narratives” class, when I was struck by how many “ill” people are sharing their stories through emerging web technologies, either through sites like Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything,” mobile apps like Whisper, which allow users to share illness experiences anonymously, and Twitter #hashtag movements, such as #spoonie or #mindourfuture, used to promote awareness and reduce stigma of various illnesses previously neglected in society. My suspicion for an overall thesis or argumentative through-line for this project, which admittedly is provisional, revolves around a cluster of utopic ideas that the more publicized illness narratives and memoirs become, the more empathetic and understanding the American public becomes, resulting in better treatment and research for the disease and behavioral “dys”orders that, according to the DSM, are becoming more and more prevalent in society.
Over the past twenty years, digital media and web technologies have not only dramatically influenced society in general, but also the field of higher education and scholarship. I utilize these new forms for a variety of pedagogical purposes: to inspire new ways of writing, thinking, and communicating. My research, furthermore, considers how these emerging digital media carve open spaces for a new way to tell stories, structure archives and databases, and increase the potential for sharing and collaboration. For instance, how does an “e-therapy” video game for children with major depression represent the disease compared to a print memoir or a DSM description? How does its digital format affect its aesthetic and rhetorical properties, and are these discontinuous or continuous with previous analogue formats? These questions are urgent and fascinating, and will, I believe, keep me quite busy for decades to come.